Sermon; Morin Heights, Feb 21st 2016
This morning I want to pick specific pieces out of each of the readings we have heard today, including the psalm, because I believe they weave into a coherent story. That story is one of the strength we can receive from God and of how we can use prayer to channel that strength into influencing our actions. I call it “From Strength to Prayer to Action.”
One of the themes which emerges from the 1st Reading and the Psalm is of God as a protector. He is called a shield, our strength, helper and sustainer. He is the “shelter of all who hope in you” as the Psalm says. How does this happen? Is it automatic - you are a Christian and so God protects you. Not really. Just saying your a Christian firstly doesn't make you one and secondly even when you are one, protection is neither automatic nor absolute. You wouldn't stand in the middle of a busy road and expect not to get hit, so the protection is variable, a relative thing.
Is it physical, mental, spiritual? I would suggest that it can be all three at differing times, but that it varies an awful lot from person to person and from situation to situation. What changes it, what takes the protection we feel from being pretty weak if you stand in the middle of the road to being strong in other situations? For me it is prayer. Faith is a prerequisite, but not many people pray if they don’t have faith.
People pray in different ways. Some have a fixed time each day at which they read the Bible, pray over it, pray about personal matters and for others. Others have different patterns. I am not very good at the daily routine, partly because my days vary enormously and I find it hard to carve out a fixed period. Rather than short daily passages from the Bible, I prefer to read whole books when I have the time, often when I am preparing a sermon. As for prayer, I find it easy to pray at odd times of the day, any time that seems appropriate. Sitting at my desk, working at home. Pumping gas into my car at the Ultramar. Walking in the woods. Especially walking in the woods. Let me digress on that for a moment.
Did you notice all the references to the mountains, maybe the Laurentians, in today’s readings? I did. “Set me high upon a rock”, said the psalmist this morning. Or in the beginning of the Gospel “he took Peter, John and James and went up a mountain to pray”. The Transfiguration of Jesus which I read about from the Gospel took place on a mountain, on the heights! Sounds like Morin Heights or the Laurentians to me. “Look at the sky and count the stars if you can”, says God to Abraham; well you certainly cannot do that in Montreal, St. Jerome or even St. Sauveur. You need to be away from the bright lights, away from the distractions of our civilization and in the simplicity of nature to count the stars. Vincent Van Gogh is reputed to have said "When I have a terrible need of - shall I say the word - religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.” There is something about being with nature that helps be in touch with our spiritual selves. For some, nature is the manifestation of God, for others his creation. For others still, it is both.
Whatever your own personal belief, I’m betting that you find it relatively easy to pray, relatively easy to talk to God, when you are alone in the woods. We are transformed by the beauty around us and it makes our conversation with God deeper, more personal, perhaps more meaningful, although I probably shouldn’t assume that the effect of nature on you is the same as it is on me.
To come back to prayer as channel for God’s protection and strength and our actions! There are many kinds of prayer, but included in these are prayers of asking and prayers of thanking. The psalm says “One thing have I asked of the Lord, one thing I seek” which is obviously a prayer of petition or asking for something. This may be asking for protection of some kind, protection against the catching or worsening of an illness or against the decrease in bodily strength, particularly as we age. Perhaps for ourselves or a friend or a relative.
When we ask for something for someone else, we call this intercessions and that’s why the Prayers of the People are sometimes called Thanksgivings and Intercessions. We are interceding for someone else. We may ask for the success of our children or grandchildren, at school, at their chosen activities like music or sports, or it may be social, hoping they can make good friends. If we ask for something, we are assuming that there is a possibility of it happening, that God will provide his strength, his shield and protection. Likewise, if we are thanking God in our prayers, it is because we believe God has had an impact on something which has occurred.
It is these prayers that transform the protection and strength from a generality to something which pertains to us personally. “Whom then shall I fear” “in the day of trouble, he shall keep me safe”. We understand that God’s protection and strength are there because of our faith. We know that what we ask for is not necessarily what is going to happen, but we also know that having asked for it, we feel safer and stronger. We transform that general understanding of God’s protection and strength into something focused and specific, something personal, when we call upon it in conversation with God, in prayer.
So what should we do with this sustaining strength, this protection, this shield. Is it enough on its own, or should we use it? I suggest that we should let it transfigure us, just as Jesus was transfigured while praying on the heights above Bethsaida. Not in the same way, obviously. But in the 2nd reading, Paul says “You have us as a model; imitate those whose life conforms to it”. We have Jesus and Paul as models for the way we act and Paul is suggesting we should imitate them. There is nothing wrong with imitation. Imitation is a very good way of transforming ourselves, of learning how to do something.
If we want to learn something, what do we usually do? People learn differently but it is usually some combination of the following. We have someone explain it to us, we ask them to show us and we imitate what they did. Once we are comfortable with it, we start to experiment and find our own way of doing it. This applies to most things; learning to cook, playing chess or the organ, cross-country skiing, becoming Treasurer or Warden or Altar Guild.
Through prayer, we can ask for God’s help in transforming ourselves, so that we follow Jesus’ model more closely. The Gospels show and explain Jesus actions. Sometimes the Gospels explain the results or the consequences of Jesus’ actions, to help us understand. Jesus uses parables to explain his values and beliefs to his disciples and these also provide us with ideal behaviour. The Gospels show us what we need to imitate.
If we want to discuss Jesus’ behaviour 2000 years ago and see how it applies today, we can talk to one of our priests or to a friend whom we trust, and this can provide helpful feedback or affirmation of what we think.
The transformation that I am talking about starts with the transformation of the spirit. If during and after prayer, we feel God’s protection and strength, then we are probably in a good spiritual place. From this place, we can decide what we should be doing, how we should act in particular circumstances or in a particular situation affecting us at the time. And so we transform our minds.
Lastly, we act on our decisions; we imitate the actions of Jesus which seem to apply to our situation. We transform our bodies’ actions into something more consistent with Jesus’ example.
In summary then, what am I suggesting? I am suggesting that if we feel that God is our protector and strength, we can turn that from a generality to something specific through prayer. A conversation with God moves us closer to being able to imitate the model of Jesus. We can let God’s protection and strength transform us; from strength to prayer to actions, which imitate Jesus’ life.